RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Slogging through muck and venturing out on kayaks, volunteers along North Carolina's seashore are rescuing sea turtles that become stunned when the water turns cold and get stuck in coastal sounds, unable to save themselves.
The sea turtles — typically green, Kemp's Ridley and the occasional loggerhead — tend to be juveniles who get so busy gorging themselves on the near-shore goodies that they don't get around to moving out to the warmer Gulf stream before a cold spell hits.
"This is really one of the absolute hot spots on the planet for cold stunning in almost any year," said Liz Browning Fox of Buxton on Hatteras Island, who rescues cold-stunned turtles that beach themselves or get stuck along the edge of the Pamlico Sound. "We have a huge sound system in North Carolina, and it's like a feasting table for several species ... Juvenile sea turtles feast on this delightful table. Like teenagers, they stay at the table as long as you'll let them."
Because they're cold-blooded, turtles' body temperatures match their environment. When the water temperature drops below 50 degrees, they become too lethargic to move into warmer water. Since the first cold-stunned turtle of the winter was found, Dec. 23, 2012, along Cape Lookout, rescuers have taken in 72 live turtles and found six others dead, said Matthew Godfrey, the state sea turtle biologist in Beaufort. The vast majority of the rescued turtles survived, he said.
Some years, as many as 150 cold-stunned turtles have been found in North Carolina, he said.
Most of the turtles this year are being found along Hatteras and Ocracoke islands, said Karen Clark, program coordinator at the Outer Banks Center for Wildlife Education and an adviser to the Network for Endangered Sea Turtles on the Outer Banks.
On Hatteras Island, one volunteer goes out each morning and checks the water temperature. When it's below 50 degrees, a core group of about 10 volunteers is alerted to search for cold-stunned turtles.
Fox dons knee boots while others wear hip waders that allow them to go into deeper water. Fox's brother, Lou Browning, brings turtles in on his kayak, sometimes cradling them on his lap. The volunteers carry these heavy turtles long distances to get them to a car. A 25-pound turtle weighs a lot after a half-mile walk through muck, Fox said.
"When it comes to turtles, we bend over backward to do whatever we can whenever we can," Lou Browning said.
Turtles "are just simply amazing creatures," he said. "They've been around so many millions of years. They're the toughest animals on earth. They survive things that no other creature can."